Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Monster in the Face

On one corner of our city street, a candy store changed owners every few years of my childhood. 

Among several issues, the most public remained that no one could chase the loitering teenagers from the store front. Once teenagers in a city claim an intersection, it becomes a home. Long before cell phones, we would walk to the corner to see who was around. If you lurked long enough, someone in your inner circle would show.

Boys ponied dollar bills together to share quarts of beer and a pack of cigarettes. 

Girls chewed small gum and bartered swigs from the boys. 

Boys urinated against the brick facade. 

Girls cuddled with boys in the doorway.

Beneath the low thrumming of the streetlight, their laughter jangled along the brick and asphalt and into the open windows of sleeping men. Their thick-necked wives bellowed from behind blinds to shut up before slamming the windows shut.

The boys and girls just laughed and gnawed on purple hickeys.

In a city, the evening reputation of a corner often carried to the day for the locals. Once the stain of teenagers marred a business, people stopped buying. Desperate for income, store owners made teenagers feel more welcome during the day by installing Pac-Man machines. They remodeled with soda coolers and cigarette displays right up front. Soon a card shop turned into a candy shop turned into a water ice and pizza shop turned into a confusion of anything that sold and so went by the name of thrift store or even more neutral monikers like "Sal's Paradise" or "Little Jock's" that peddled whatever a teenager might buy--including drugs.

Inside by day. Inside the parked cars by night.

I stuck my toe into this world as a child--I stole chocolate and a stamp-collecting book when it was still a candy store, still fighting to retain its dignity.  The owner’s name was Joe.  

Joe was the first monster I knew before I saw the real monsters of the world--the creatures seething in small plastic bags, whiskey bottles, and handguns. Joe was skinny and tall; olive-complected and pock-marked. His wiry hair, thinning and silver. Heavy stubble powdered his jaw. Deep eye sockets led to eyes losing their light, but most distracting was the hearing aid.  It glowered at me like a goblin clinging to the ledges of the towers of Notre Dame. 

He wasn’t very friendly, even before I stole from him.
Someone told me Joe’s son died when he was little.
My grandmother caught me stealing from Joe’s shop and made me take it all back.  After sneaking in behind two boys buying cigarettes, I grabbed several foiled chocolates and plucked the magazine from a stand as I walked out.

I already ate the second of the chocolates and opened the plastic cover on the stamp-collecting book in grandmom's living room.  And then grandmom was towering above me.

"Where did you get those?"

She lived across the street from "Joe's Sweet Shop." Taking me by the collar back into the shop, Grandmom paid for the chocolate.  Joe said nothing and punched hard keys on the register. 

"Tell Mr. Cilione what you have to say."

The soda cooler gleamed silver in front of me. I couldn't look at monster in the face. I never heard him called 'Mr. Cilione.'

Grandmom insisted that Mr. Cilione take the stamp-collecting book back though.  He balked at the torn plastic, but grandmom insisted, and he did without another word. Once outside, she stopped in front amid the cigarette smoke and laughter. She asked for the rest of the chocolate and had me place the final piece in her long slender hands, and it disappeared forever as did the incident.  

She took me small hands and weaved her fingers within mine before we crossed the street. She didn't let me go when we crossed. And we never talked about it again.


  1. Powerful imagery. I could feel myself visualizing everything. Grandmothers are pretty amazing!

  2. I loved the honesty of your writing. I wish I had a grandma like yours watching out for me and detouring me from some of the mischief I got up to. Maybe I can be the grandma she was for my, handful of a grandson.